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Making an obstacle an opportunity

This picture captures a moment when I counted my blessings.

My journey through treatment for breast cancer is about so much more than what is happening to my body. The very many obstacles of my treatment create opportunities for deep growth and personal development.

I started this blog quoting Lance Armstrong in his book It’s Not About The Bike. His mother’s words to him to make an obstacle an opportunity helped him to believe he could survive anything – even testicular cancer.

His second book, Every Second Counts, recounts his post-cancer perspective on life. Every second counts as he returns to training for the Tour de France, and also as he recognises how precious and fragile life itself is.

Every moment is significant.

Nothing is wasted.

Lance found that ‘the experience of suffering is like the experience of exploring, of finding something unexpected and revelatory. When you find the outermost thresholds of pain, or fear, or uncertainty, what you experience afterwards is an expansive feeling, a widening of your capabilities.’ (p222)

I am listening to a series of podcast from Mosaic called Reality Check. The talks cover topics such as Making Your Life Count, Is This All There Is? Eternity in Our Hearts. You can download the podcasts here.

The speaker, Erwin McManus, talks about digging deep to find beauty in tragedy.

When we step back and see our situation differently, taking the perspective of eternity, our vision and understanding expands. We begin to glimpse an interconnectedness.

The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’

Every experience and every second counts.

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How can I not speak about grief?

This picture says a lot about my journey – especially the baseball cap. And as I look at it I can revisit the feelings that it expresses.

But sorrow, however, turns out not to be a state but a process

. . . and C.S. Lewis is right. Each day is different from the one before, and we can be thankful for that.

We are told there are five stages of grief or loss

Denial  Anger  Bargaining  Depression  Acceptance

The experience does not come with a map or directions. We live it day by day with all the confusion, exhaustion and blurred vision that comes with it.

Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape

Yesterday I read C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed. Far from being a morose experience I found it to be encouraging.

We all experience grief. Knowing it is a process, not a state, gives it movement. And movement means change is possible.

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Where is God when you need Him?

You pray and it feels like you are praying into a void – your words echo into emptiness. Or maybe it feels like you are shouting into a crackling telephone line – you have to shout to be heard. And there is only noise on the other end of the line.

I share with you my greatest resource from the past year. A treasure that God gave me before I received my diagnosis of breast cancer. A treasure that taught me a new way to pray before I knew how desperately I would need it.

It is The Jesus Prayer. I first heard about it on a weekend conference with our Bishop early in 2009. He mentioned it briefly in his summing up about prayer, and it caught my curiosity.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

The essence is simple.  As you repeat the words of the prayer over and over again, slowly and deeply, you open up to the Holy Spirit and become aware of a movement of prayer that is much bigger than you.

Prayer like this feels like stepping on to a boat or plunging into a river that is full of life and connects us with a global voice of prayer.

Simon Barrington-Ward has written an excellent little book called simply The Jesus Prayer. Chapter nine is life changing – What Happens When You Pray the Jesus Prayer

The phrases of the Jesus Prayer give the top of our mind something to be occupied with, so that the rest of the mind can be open to the deeper feeling that lies underneath. This is what those who have used the prayer have called putting the mind in the heart. The words occupy our surface being at the same time as they communicate with the depth in us. (p25)

In simple language what this means is that the Jesus Prayer gives us a way to engage deeply with God that acknowledges and manages our mind’s natural tendency to wander.

The essence of the prayer is to practice the presence of God and to stay there until eventually you were always conscious of that presence and always in communion with him . . In seeking that presence you would have to recognise all the passions that struggle to take hold of you in the depth of your being constantly. You have to keep turning from them to Christ and keep letting his presence with you and in you through the Holy Spirit still these passions and transform them into energies working for good. (p64)

My journey through breast cancer has contained many passions and fears that struggled to take hold of me. And in the battle ground of my mind the Jesus Prayer has become for me a key that transforms my thinking and my experience. God’s presence is always only one deep enjoyable breath away.

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It is all very well talking about learning from the lives of the heroes and fools in the bible, but the natural question that follows is HOW?

I had never thought of God as a mentor until I read Wayne Cordero’s book. The Divine Mentor gives the nuts and bolts of growing your faith as you sit at the feet of the Saviour – through spiritual journaling.

Henriette Browne (1829-1901) 'A Girl Writing'

A few years ago, when my life was something like a railway junction, I discovered journaling by accident. I was a beginner in a writing class. Our first task was morning pages, an exercise to get over writer’s block. This is to put pen to paper first thing in the morning and let three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness writing, flow on to the page. You write about whatever comes into your mind – for your own eyes only.

I don’t take to routine easily, but this one slotted right into place without any difficulty.

As I wrote page after page I found I was talking to God – words and questions just poured out on to the paper.

Without realising, I was learning how to keep a spiritual journal.

At the same time I read the Divine Mentor and everything fell into place. Wayne Cordero talks about the importance of constructing a sacred enclosure round your heart.

Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it

Your heart can be broken by one great physical, emotional or moral collapse, or it may be little by little, through the months and years, gradually weakening our lives, eroding our personalities, killing the essence of who we are and who we would like to become.” (p17)

“The choices you make regarding the foundations of your life have eternal implications that go far beyond your life span on earth. As Paul told his young pastor-friend Timothy, ‘Physical training is good, but training for godliness is much better, promising benefits in this life and in the life to come’.” (p21)

The technique is simple – Gather a kit of 5 things (here is mine)

  1. Bible
  2. Pen
  3. Journal
  4. Bible reading plan
  5. Daily planner (your diary)

I include a bag that I carry the kit around in (I was given this one on a trip to Istanbul), and a set of colour pens – adding colour, mind maps and highlights makes the pages and the learning so much more memorable.

He uses the acrostic SOAP as a guide for daily reading – The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever 🙂

SCRIPTURE   OBSERVATION   APPLICATION   PRAYER

He guides you to read, reflect, ask what it means in relation to YOU and your life, and pray.

You write what you like in your journal. And as you do this, day by day you notice your senses sharpen, your ears tune in and your heart learns to recognise God’s voice in your life. The evidence is there on the pages you wrote yourself.

And so these are the five things for life – the kit to help you talk to God and listen to what he has to say to you each day, as you build a sacred enclosure round your heart.


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Someone to help you avoid painful mistakes?

Someone to lead you through the maze of life – decisions about your career, your relationships, even about who you are and what you want to change about yourself?

Who doesn’t?

This someone has to be very special if you are going to allow them to speak into your life. They need to have a track record of wisdom, honesty and integrity. And most of all you need to know they care enough about you to tell you the truth and to stick around for the long-term, because changing can take us a long time

If you say yes to this, and you want to get to know God better, have a look at The Divine Mentor. It is a great book and gives a different slant on the value of reading the bible regularly.

Wayne Cordeiro tells how he learned to hear God speak to him daily through scripture. And how he learned through the stories of the heroes and fools of the bible.

“By walking with David amid the smoldering ruins of Ziklag, I find help and strength for challenges that come my own way.

Jeremiah saved my life. Nehemiah buoyed my faltering ministry. Through his struggles with riches and greed, Solomon tutored me to be a person of excellence without opulence.” (p9)

“Abraham will mentor you on faith. You will learn from Samson about sexual self-control. Daniel will instruct you in how to influence your community. Ruth will teach you about love and loyalty.” (p11)

Click here to listen to Wayne Cordeiro tell how Jeremiah saved his life, and how God can speak into our lives through the lives of the people we read about in scripture.

And don’t we love to hear each other’s stories so that we can learn from them too?

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A year ago I would have described myself as a private person. I would have laughed if you suggested that I would soon have breast cancer and be blogging about it.

And yet this blog is not so much about me as about you. Sharing my journey with you gives us a chance to get to know each other better – and that is important to me.

Chapter 3 of J.I Packer’s book Knowing God adds a lot to my understanding of what relationships are like, and especially what a relationship with God can be like. It is headed Knowing and Being Known.

He gives a really useful description of what knowing God involves:

‘Knowing’ God is of necessity going to be more complex than ‘knowing’ another person. Just as knowing my neighbour is a more complex business than ‘knowing’ a house, or a book. . . The more complex the object, the more complex is the knowing of it. . . the position is further complicated by the fact that people keep secrets, and do not show everybody all that is in their hearts.’ (p. 36-37)

And so the quality and extent of our knowledge of other people depends more on them than on us – how much they want to be known.

Packer asks us to imagine what it might be like to be introduced to someone we considered to be ‘above us’ – whether in rank, or intellect, or personal qualities. The more conscious we are of our own inferiority, the more we will feel that our role is simply to respond respectfully and let them take the initiative in all interactions. He continues:

‘But if instead he starts at once to take us into his confidence, and tells us frankly what is in his mind on matters of common concern, and if he goes on to invite us to join him in particular undertakings he has planned, and asks us to make ourselves permanently available for this kind of collaboration whenever he needs us, then we shall feel enormously privileged’  (p.38)

This, as far as it goes, gives an illustration of what it means to ‘know’ God. God honours us by taking the initiative to make himself known to us.

To make it easy for us the bible gives us four pictures that help us understand how we can expect to relate to God

as a son to a father; a wife to a husband; a subject to his king and a sheep to its shepherd.

I find this really helpful. In the most recent part of my journey I have been like a bleating sheep who needed to be looked after and led. At other times a different metaphor would be more relevant.

The wonderful thing is that, according to biblical values, each pictures tells of a God who loves and cares for us.

Thank you so much for joining me on this on-line conversation. Whether you comment or not I value your presence. My journey through cancer is moving forward all the time. I can see us in the months ahead looking back at the highs and lows, remembering the pictures, the stories, the music, the pain and the joy behind them all.  We have so much more to talk about and to explore – and I look forward to doing that together 🙂


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What do you do that makes you happy? – just you.

And what stops you from doing it, or doing more of it?

I guess most of us will say we do not have enough time, we are busy, we have other commitments and we hope to get round to it one day.

But the time to stop and plan does not appear and we cruise along with the tumbling flow of day-to-day pressures.

With my diagnosis of breast cancer came the gift of time – something I have been short of for years.  Time to read, reflect and re-think what makes me happy.

The time I have is filled with the loving kindness of friends who have shared so much with me. One gave me this delightful book – and I share it with you.

The School of Essential Ingredients is Erica Bauermeister’s first novel. Her love of slow food and slow life was instilled by her two years spent living in northern Italy with her husband and children. The book follows the lives of eight students who gather in Lillian’s Restaurant every Monday evening for a cookery class. And yet the story is not about cooking – it is about the lives of the students as they search for something beyond the routine of food and kitchen.

It is about savouring the richness of the moment and paying attention to the possibilities it brings.

One of the most essential ingredients of all is time. If you stop and think about it, every meal you eat, you eat time – the weeks it takes to ripen a tomato, the years to grow a fig tree. And every meal you eat is time out of your day.

How can we be so disrespectful to our body and our food that we eat standing up; we eat as we walk along the street; or we shoot our meals into our stomach without giving our taste buds a chance? Is this what we want?

While she was writing the book two of Erica’s closest friends died of cancer. Her experience of the highs and lows of life adds richness to the characters in her book

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven

Maybe a key skill for life is not about searching for happiness but learning how to recognise when we are happy . . .

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